Poison frogs, sometimes known as dart poison frogs (Family Dendrobatidae) are often found along bodies of water and among the leaf litter/vegetation of the forest floor. Many arboreal species spend time in shrubs, trees, and other vegetation. Species are often associated with certain plants in the wild (i.e. bromeliads) which are used for reproduction, territory, etc.
The populations of many species are declining due to severe habitat loss or illegal over collection. The poison frogs found for sale in the U.S. are generally captive born animals belonging to species that were both legally exported initially and are fairly common in the hobby.
A Note On Toxins
The skin of poison frogs contains alkaloid-based compounds (i.e. histrionicotoxins, batrachotoxins) that are derived from millipedes and ants (and possibly other invertebrates) upon which the frogs feed.. This includes ants, many of which contain alkaloids. The toxins are excreted through the skin. Three species have been used by the Choco and other indigenous people of Colombia to coat the tips of their hunting darts with poison.
However, captive frogs do not retain these toxins unless fed the invertebrate species upon which they prey in the wild, or close relatives of these. Most of these frogs are at least fairly shy, and the stress of being handled may be overwhelming. Possible chemicals from our skin, as well as body heat, are also shocks to a frog's system, and it is possible to damage the protective layer of slime that covers the amphibian's body. This is a part of the frogs immune system, similar to the coating on a fish, and once compromised bacteria and fungus can gain a foothold and lead to illness or death. The best method for moving poison frogs is to gently shoe them into a deli cup or other container with minimal airflow and a bedding of damp paper towel or damp long fiber sphagnum moss
. Be sure to wash your hands before and after coming into any contact with these frogs.
Are Poison Frogs Right For You?
Poison frogs are not suitable for beginners, and even those with experience will need to learn a few techniques and have patience while planning out the enclosure they wish to use for their frogs. They eat tiny insects, and you must have a supply at hand. They have certain requirements as to temperature, humidity, and type of enclosure that will vary from species to species. Some poison frogs do well in small groups while others are territorial and will fight amongst each other. They are rewarding captives, and once a bit of research has been done the fun of setting up a home for these beautiful frogs and watching them interact can begin.
In general, poison frogs require temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees and humidity ranging from 80 to 100 percent. Some frogs prefer higher temperatures while others thrive at the lower end of the spectrum. Overheating can be a danger in such an enclosed space, and careful attention should be paid to the amount of ventilation, the size of the tank, and the type of lighting used. This will be covered later in greater detail. Temperatures can drop five to ten degrees at night, depending on what your daytime temperatures are. This is usually achieved simply by turning off the tank lighting at night. Humidity is maintained through the use of live plants, water features, false bottoms or drainage layers, and regular misting with chlorine-free water.
Tank size is dependent on the species of frog to be kept as well as the number of frogs planned for the vivarium. The smallest recommended size is 10 gallons, which can accommodate one or two frogs of most species. The more space you give your frogs the more active they will be. This also allows you more room to recreate a small piece of neotropical rainforest in your home. Larger tanks are certainly easier to work with in terms of landscaping and plant use, and are better suited to full-size water features such as streams, waterfalls, and ponds. Also, more frogs can be placed in a larger vivarium, allowing the keeper to observe more of the activities and interactions that occur between these animals. That said, tank size can range from 10 gallons to upwards of 100 gallons. Obviously, such a large tank might not be necessary or feasible for a few smaller frogs. Most hobbyists use tanks between 20 and 55 gallons, though one can certainly keep poison frogs successfully in a larger or smaller vivarium. It is also worth mentioning that some of the smaller arboreal frogs are better suited to tall enclosures. 16 inches of height would be the minimum for these frogs considering the fact that a false bottom or drainage layer as well as substrate will fill a portion of the tank. Excellent tanks for these species include 20 gallon high and extra high tanks, 44 corners, smaller bowfront tanks, 30 cubes, etc. Even long tanks can be used if they are vertically oriented and a custom front/door is installed. Simple instructions for this type of enclosure can be found online through many resources.
NOTE: Mixing species is generally frowned upon in the poison frog hobby, even in larger tanks. The possibility of breeding hybrid frogs is undesirable, and many of these frogs are extremely aggressive and will fight each other. This can lead to frog deaths due to drowning, starvation, and stress. It is much better to start with one species per tank, especially when new to the hobby. There are many factors which can lead to serious problems when multiple species occupy the same vivarium.
The first step, once you have selected a species and a tank size, is to plan out your vivarium. This section is only a brief overview, and more detailed instructions can be found in our vivarium construction sheet. Water features and large landscape features such as tree trunks, fallen logs, large rocks, etc. require careful consideration. The layout of your tank will determine what type of plants you can use as well as available floor space. Once you have an idea of where you want to place particular features, you can begin construction of a false bottom or drainage layer. False bottoms are excellent if you will be creating a deep pool or need a certain level of water in which to place a pump. Drainage layers allow excess water to collect in the bottom of the tank, keeping the soil damp but not soaking. If water collects in the soil, or the water level creeps up near the soil level, the substrate can become soggy and sour. It is important to have some method for removing collected water once it reaches roughly one inch below the soil level. Please consult our vivarium construction sheet for further details on drainage layers and false bottoms.
are optional, but they add to the overall realistic appearance of the tank and provide some opportunities for increased livable space and unique plant/landscaping arrangements. They can be made out of cork bark
, coco panels, tree fern panels, and even expanding foam. We recommend Great Stuff Gap & Crack Filler if this effect is desired. Objects such as cork bark, driftwood
, and other natural elements can be used in conjunction with this foam to create realistic and permanent background capable of supporting plant life. This is covered in detail in our vivarium construction article
A few suggestions to motivate a newcomer to vivarium landscaping: rock waterfalls, streams, ponds or small water areas, large smooth rocks, slate, driftwood, cork tubes or flats, mosses, hills, cliff faces, and caves can all be utilized with a little work and imagination.
Planting your vivarium is as important as determining your landscape. They will be the ornaments of your tank, and will give the naturalistic feel of a vivarium its final touch. Many frogs also use particular plants for breeding or territories. Most tropical houseplants can be used, and we sell many varieties at That Fish Place including philodendrons, begonias, bromeliads, club mosses, creeping fig, and ivy. When using plants, make sure you clean them with warm water and dish soap first, and then rinse until clean. It is possible for any houseplants to contain fertilizers, insects, or mollusks which may be harmful to your frogs or plants. Choose plants that fit your size requirements. Many plants also have different growing requirements as well, needing various levels of light, moisture, and humidity. Some will grow upright while others cling to the ground or spread on vines. Once you have decided on your plants and cleaned them, arrange them to your preference in the tank before planting or mounting them. This will allow you to make any quick adjustments that may be needed. Remember that it is better to plant sparse and allow them to grow in rather than overcrowding your tank with countless varieties. A busy tank full of contrasting plants often looks more artificial than a tank in which a select number of varieties have been allowed to grow and spread naturally.
Some things to consider when planting: Available space, hiding/sleeping locations, territories, general flow, color, and the requirements of the plants in question (i.e. water level, growing space, growing style, and light level).
Lighting is the next step in finishing your vivarium and should be determined once you have decided on the tank size, landscaping, and type of plants you wish to utilize. Lighting need not be extravagant for all but the largest tanks. Good growth can be accomplished with simple fluorescent tubes (T8's, etc.) as well as more expensive and powerful compact fluorescents. Be attentive to the depth and size of your tank as well as air flow. You should have some fresh air entering in the form of a cut out section of backstrip covered with screen or tiny holes poked in the backstrip along its length. If using a tank with a screen top, leave a small area open to allow air exchange. The Exo Terra
and Zoo Med
tanks already have ventilation holes installed in the front. While this step is not necessary in terms of oxygen supply for the frogs (keeping live plants and opening the lid daily are all that is needed) they will allow stagnant heated air to escape. Many plants need fresh air as well to grow properly.
You will want your light to span your tank, and if using a system that heats the vivarium beyond 78 degrees at normal room temperature, you may want to raise it off the tank a bit with legs or another method to allow air to circulate beneath the lights. Small fans, such as those we sell for use with aquarium lighting, can also be used to cool the lights. We recommend 5000 to 10000 K lights depending on the size of the enclosure and the plants used. High light plants such as some bromeliads can benefit from higher wavelengths, but all that is necessary to grow most tropical plants is 5000 to 6700 K. There are also plant growth bulbs available that can be used with vivariums. Note that over a bulb's lifetime its wavelengths decrease, so replacement every 6 months or so may be important.
There are many materials which you can use to help landscape your tank. Here are a few of the more common items used. Further information can of course be found on the vivarium construction sheet: Expanding foam sealant, aquarium sealant, GE silicone II, plastic egg crate (a grid-like sheet sold for use with drop ceilings), and fiberglass window screening. Certain types of cement, fiberglass, and other preparations can be used to sculpt rocks, cliff faces, etc. if one is familiar with these products and is certain they are not toxic.
Temperatures should be 73-80 F, with note that 80 F consistently may stress some species, cooler areas should be available.
Dart frogs eat tiny insects in the wild (mostly ants, aphids, termites, beetles, and other leaf litter inhabitants), and the type, size, and amount varies from species to species. Dart frogs can generally be sustained in captivity on a staple diet of flightless fruit flies. There are many types available, including larger (Drosophila hydei) and smaller (D. melanogaster) species. Even within these species there are different strains, each with their own characteristics. Some are extremely productive, others are totally wingless, and some can glide for short distances. We tend to stock cultures of the smaller D. melanogaster, in both the winged and wingless varieties. In addition to fruit flies, crickets may also be offered occasionally. Generally these will be the smallest day old crickets, and certainly no larger than 1/8 inch crickets for the largest dart frogs. Springtails (tiny isopods found in leaf litter throughout the world) can be used as supplemental feeding for smaller dart frogs, and can even be used to “seed” your vivarium. They will consume mold and break down waste in the tank, as well as providing a hunting exercise for your frogs.
Fruit flies and springtails can be cultured quite easily. Ask an employee for further information on this topic. However, our cultures will usually last around 1 month, and if you are only keeping a few tanks, buying a couple cultures a month is much simpler than creating new cultures on a regular basis (they must be cultured at the appropriate time in the culture's cycle, even if not needed, so that your supply is sustained). A staple diet of only fruit flies is not sound. Be sure to feed your frogs a variety of foods. We suggest feeding flour beetles, aphids, “meadow plankton” using Zoo Med's Bug Napper
to catch your own insects.
Dart frogs should be fed often. Preferably they should be fed daily in moderate amounts so that there are not many flies present in the tank at the next feeding time. However, most hobbyists feed their frogs every other day (as LEAST three times a week) in larger amounts. This is certainly acceptable, and is even better if springtails or another food source is readily available to the frogs for hunting on their own.
Daily Care and Maintenance
Temperatures should be monitored, especially if room temps fluctuate daily. The preferred range is between 70 and 80 degrees with a slight drop at night, but this differs from species to species. Please consult the profiles section for individual temperatures.
Humidity should remain high, around 80-100 percent. This is aided by a drainage layer and live plants. Air flow is still necessary to keep the air from becoming stagnant. Daily misting will provide the necessary moisture. Keep in mind that every plant and feature in your tank need not be soaking wet in order to provide the proper humidity.
Aside from feeding and misting, there is not much that needs to be done on a routine basis. Plants should be pruned, thinned, or cut back depending on the look you are trying to achieve. Water from the drainage area should be siphoned off if it begins to near the soil line. A timer is a valuable piece of equipment for maintaining a photoperiod. It is certainly best if the frogs receive an equal amount of light per day on a regular schedule. Remember that these frogs are tropical and will do best with a regular photoperiod of 12-14 hours of daylight.
Green and black poison frog, Dendrobates auratus
This is a large and quite variable poison frog found from southern Nicaragua to Colombia on the Caribbean and from southwestern Costa Rica through Panama and into western Colombia on the Pacific side. A population is also present as an introduced species in Oahu, Hawaii. Colors range from green and black to shades of blue, turquoise, and even chocolate. Patterns vary tremendously depending on where the frogs are found.
In captivity: Novice. D. auratus
are shy frogs, though some morphs may be a bit more active than others. Use a top layer of dead leaf litter (pesticide/chemical free oak or magnolia) or moss and select plants that will grow close to the ground and provide plenty of shelter. These frogs don't need a lot of climbing space and will benefit more from lower canopy-like plants that provide easy retreats in case they become scared. Temperatures are fine at 70-80 degrees, and they can be kept in groups, providing there are at least 5 gallons of space per frog. Provide other hiding areas in the form of driftwood, rocks, etc.
Dyeing poison frog, D. tinctorius
A large and personable frog found in Guyana, French Guiana, Suriname, and Brazil. There are many geographic morphs of this species available, the most common of which we carry being cobalt, alanis, and yellow back. These frogs can be found in an almost limitless variety of patterns and colors.
In captivity: Novice. D. tinctorius
are highly visible and spend their days foraging for insects. They spend most of their time on the ground and require a tank with a large footprint. A pair should be kept in a tank no smaller than 10 gallons. Care must be taken to avoid keeping two females together. Aggression between them may lead to the death of one frog. Females may be distinguished by their larger size at maturity and by the smaller toe pads present on the front limbs, but the reliability of this sexing technique varies from morph to morph and may not be possible with immature frogs. Temperatures of 70-80 degrees are preferred. Unlike other large poison frogs, tincs will generally not eat any item larger than the fruit fly species Drosphila hydei.
Blue poison frog, D. azureus
Separated from D. tinctorius by geographic features in Suriname, these frogs are very similar in shape, size, and behavior. The coloration is a rich blue with black spots.
Novice. See profile of dyeing poison frog.
Bumblebee poison frog, D. leucomelas
These bright yellow and black frogs are found in Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, and Colombia. There are several morphs distinguished factors which include size and pattern. D. leucomelas is an excellent group frog and has a birdlike call. While large, they do not reach the size of the dyeing or blue poison frogs.
Novice. Leucs do well in groups and will make use of height, so taller tanks can be utilized and can include large rocks, tall driftwood, sloped landscaping, and larger plants. Temperatures should fall between 70 and 80 degrees. Small groups should be kept in 20 gallon high tanks or larger. These are popular frogs due to the fact that they can be kept in groups and their appearance is very bold. Males may begin calling loudly from the top of the tank at as young as six months.
Mimic poison frog, D. imitator
Imitators are one of the so-called “thumbnail” frogs due to their small size. Many of these frogs are at least partially arboreal. Most are an inch or less in size and are very quick. They can be skittish, but most imitators will at least be fairly adventurous in their tank as long as it meets the proper criteria. Imitators are highly variable in appearance. They have a metallic yellow to green body with black spots and green to blue legs with darker markings. They are excellent climbers and at home hopping and crawling along the leaves and stems of large plants. They are found in the northeastern Peruvian rainforest.
Intermediate, due to size and quickness. These frogs are easy to lose sight of even when out in the open. Thumbnail frogs such as imitators will do best in a vertically-oriented enclosure such as some of our uniquely shaped fish tanks- while they may not be ideal for the requirements of most fish, they are perfect for these frogs. They may also be kept in more conventional tanks, as long as there is at least some height. 20 gallon high tanks, 29 gallon tanks, and others similar in shape are recommended. They can be kept in groups, but be on the watch for aggression with both sexes. Males will often engage in wrestling matches. If the tank is too small, or there is not enough cover or proper plant life to create their own territories, one male may eventually kill another through the stress of constant combat. Accidental drowning during these fights also occurs, so be cautious if using a water feature. The best plants for these frogs include large tropicals with broad leaves, bromeliads (these are excellent spots for hiding, claiming territory, and reproducing), and creeping plants which will spread to provide cover when these frogs come to the ground. Temperatures of 70-80 degrees during the day are ideal.
Strawberry poison frog, D. pumilio:
Strawberry poison frogs actually occur in an extreme number of geographic morphs. They are a thumbnail-sized frog that range from bright red to black and every color in between. Many are patternless, some have contrasting coloration on their limbs or stomach, and others have spots or blotches on their back. They are found in Central America, specifically throughout Panama and Costa Rica. They are also present in Nicaragua. D. pumilio are generally bold frogs, especially if their enclosure is densely planted. They are extremely territorial and should be kept individually or in pairs. Males have a loud call.
Advanced, due in part to aggression as well as breeding behavior. A well-planted tall or vertical tank is necessary, and should be furnished with large-leaved plants, creeping vines, and bromeliads. High humidity is necessary, and most morphs seem to do best at a temperature in the mid to upper 70's.
Three-striped poison frog, Epipedobates trivittatus:
There are a variety of morphs of this frog. We currently carry a two-striped morph from Suriname, but trivs are found in Peru as well. One of the largest dart frogs, with granular skin on its back. The Suriname two-striped morph has a green outline around its dark back and mottled green legs. In shape it is similar to the common North American frogs with which many people are familiar. They are powerful jumpers and can be skittish at first. Males may call from an elevated position, but they are generally terrestrial frogs.
Intermediate, due to breeding difficulties and space requirements. These frogs should have a large vivarium with background material on the back and both sides. This will keep them from jumping into the sides of the tank if they are startled. They are a fairly rare frog in the hobby due to breeding difficulties, and many specimens are still wild-caught. Lots of ground cover, canopy-like plants, and hiding areas are recommended. The more adequate the vivarium, the more active and bold the frogs will become. They can be kept at 70-80 degrees and will eat fruit flies and springtails. Crickets as large as ¼ inch can also be offered to adults from time to time.